Grapevine: Rivlin meets Navon at book launch

Reuven Rivlin and Yitzhak Navon (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Reuven Rivlin and Yitzhak Navon
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
After an absence of 12 years – during which he was wanted for questioning in connection with the investigation into alleged bribes to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, transferred via the latter’s sons, Gilad and Omri – Austrian businessman Martin Schlaff came to Israel this week for his niece’s wedding at the Tel Aviv Hilton.
There, guests included one of his good friends, MK Avigdor Liberman, whose name has been linked with Schlaff’s on many occasions.
Also present were Economy Minister Arye Deri, whom Schlaff has been rumored to have helped financially during his corruption trial; diamond merchant and copper miner Dan Gertler; and lawyer Dov Weissglas, who was Ariel Sharon’s bureau chief and before that took care of Schlaff’s legal affairs in Israel.
Schlaff, who is associated with Casinos Austria, is probably bestknown in Israel as Yasser Arafat’s partner in the Oasis Casino – which opened in Jericho in 1998. The casino was closed two years later by the IDF for security reasons.
Many of the tables at the wedding were segregated, with seats occupied only by haredi men. The father of the bride, Rabbi Israel Alter Schlaff, is Martin Schlaff’s brother and a Bobover Hassid, like their late father Haim Schlaff – who lived in Vienna but also owned a house on Jerusalem’s Ethiopia Street, where he stayed for a short time each year.
Martin Schlaff also used to have a house in Israel – a palatial multipurpose building that was built on a plot of land in Herzliya Pituah, for which he had outbid American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. In 2005, he sold the house to Egyptian- born, Israeli-educated international businessman Zaki Rakib for $22 million.
The thrice-married Schlaff is a mystery man whose name was linked to the East German Stasi and the Mossad.
He is rumored to have had business dealings with Liberman, and has engaged in secret activities on Israel’s behalf with countries that do not have diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
Yeshiva heads, politicians and people of affluence from Israel and abroad participated in the glittering wedding reception. Martin Schlaff, who was educated in an Israeli Bobov yeshiva, was given the honor of reading the ketuba under the huppa. It is customary at haredi weddings to give money to the poor, and there was no shortage of beggars who came to the bridal ceremony – where Schlaff dispensed NIS 200 notes. Later, at the dinner, he quipped that he had no more money because he had given it all away.
Schlaff’s brother is known to be an exceedingly generous philanthropist whose major beneficiaries are Bobov and Mir institutions, but not to the exclusion of many other religious organizations and institutions throughout Israel. Martin Schlaff is also a big giver to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes.
■ AT A luncheon hosted by the Jerusalem Press Club for European-Jewish leaders participating in the fifth Israeli Jewish Congress solidarity mission, with a focus on anti-Semitism, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and the delegitimization of Israel, it seemed as if 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, Europe’s Jews had absorbed a bitter lesson.
This time around, they were reading the writing on the wall.
There were even some like Baron Julien Klener, president of Consistoire Central Israelite de Belgique, who asked when they should pack their suitcases. Klener, who was born in 1939 and hidden from the Nazis throughout his infancy, told of how his parents had managed a shop in Ostend, Belgium, around the time of his birth. The German mark was worth much more at the time than the Belgian franc, and they had several German customers among their clientele. One discerned that they were Jewish, and asked what they were still doing there and why they hadn’t fled.
“Nothing will happen to us,” Klener’s mother had replied. “We’re Belgians.”
The inference was, of course, that this had been the attitude of Jews across Europe – who mistakenly believed their nationality would protect them. Klener, by the way, was the recipient of the IJC’s inaugural Hakhel Prize, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the fight against anti-Semitism, strengthening Jewish unity and connection to the State of Israel.
Susan Levy of Gibraltar, along with several other participants, was of the opinion that the situation will get worse rather than better, and wondered what Israel will do to protect Jews around the world. While the governments of most countries are opposed to anti-Semitism and have even introduced legislation that makes it a legal offense, they can’t control the anti-Semitic invective and incitement on social media or even on TV and radio.
Saskia Pantell, executive director- general of the Zionist Federation of Sweden, who has personally experienced death threats, noted that BDS – which is widely regarded as the new anti-Semitism – affects something as innocuous as a television cooking show. One such show was instantly canceled, she recounted, because the television presenter announced, “Now we’re heading to Jerusalem, the heart of Israel.”
Itai Abelski, a second-generation Holocaust survivor from Germany, said that most of his country’s estimated 125,000 Jews feel safe, but then added: “How does a Jew feel safe? He doesn’t show he’s Jewish.”
Abelski asserted that there is a huge discrepancy between what the government tries to convey and public opinion; at some German demonstrations, participants have been known to shout, “Jews to the gas chambers!” “Beware, the beast is waking up,” cautioned Ruben Fuks, president of the Federation of Serbian Jewish Communities. “Knowing history, I am afraid. No one is dealing with the beast – only with its manifestations.”
There was consensus among the 35 Jewish leaders from 26 countries that it was important for them to meet together in Israel, to share their fears and work out strategies, but that their work was made difficult by criticisms of Israel in the Israeli media – picked up by media outlets abroad.
■ ALMOST IN tandem with Tel Aviv’s annual White Night festival, the 25th Festival of Jewish Culture opened in Krakow on Thursday with the participation of cultural figures from Israel, the US and Poland.
Ambassador to Poland Anna Azari is also part of the extensive program, telling the thousands of festival attendees that there’s more to Israel than falafel, the Dead Sea and the Holy Land as a place of pilgrimage and prayer – not to mention conflict.
Her portrait of Israel paints it as a creative, multicultural, fun place that is vibrant, innovative and sexy.
The Krakow festival is quite amazing in its diversity, incorporating the visual arts – sculpture, paintings and photography; cinema; Yiddish music; hazanut; contemporary Israeli music; dance; halla baking; and lectures on subjects such as Jews around the world, preserving prewar shtetls in Poland, Holocaust memory, Jewish literature, growing Polish interest in Israeli politics, genealogy, synagogue services and more. Among the Israeli artists is sculptor Dani Karavan.
On June 28, at the Galicia Museum in Krakow, attorney Michael Traison – who primarily divides his time between Herzliya Pituah, Detroit, Chicago and Poland – will be present at the distribution of awards to (non-Jewish) Poles doing unique work in the preservation of Jewish heritage in cities, towns and villages across Poland. This is the 18th consecutive year the Traison Foundation will present such awards.
■ ON TUESDAY evening, president Shimon Peres was in Moscow chatting in the Kremlin with President Vladimir Putin. On Wednesday evening, he was at the National Library in Jerusalem reminiscing about national poet Nathan Alterman. On Thursday evening, together with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, he was at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa hosting the opening of the annual White Night festivities, followed by the screening of an alternative cinema docudrama that was viewed by more than 1,000 people. Just in case no one remembers, our ever-energetic jet-setting former pres will be 92 on August 2.
■ WHILE PERES was doing his thing at the National Library on Wednesday, Israel’s fifth president Yitzhak Navon was being feted at the launch of his autobiography All the Way at Jerusalem’s North African Heritage Center – where 10th President Reuven Rivlin had come to do him honor, as did another native Jerusalemite, Yehoram Gaon, who was moderator. Peres didn’t need to come because Navon had given him a copy of the book some two months earlier.
At the reception prior to the launch, there was some speculation as to whether Navon – who had been hospitalized for some time at Shaare Zedek Medical Center – would show up. But just before 7 p.m. he came in a wheelchair, escorted by Rivlin, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Knesset opposition leader Isaac Herzog. Navon’s wife, Miri, said that without the superlative care he received at Shaare Zedek, there was no way he would have been able to attend.
Gaon – who had been the moderator at Navon’s 80th birthday celebration, and has a much longer- standing relationship with him – revealed that Navon had in a sense replaced his father, who died while Gaon was doing his IDF service.
His father had been meticulous about proper use of the Hebrew language, and was frequently correcting the young Gaon; then, after Gaon began broadcasting on the radio, Navon would regularly send him a written critique. On the rare occasions it didn’t arrive, Gaon berated himself that the show must have been unworthy of attention.
Rivlin, who frequently mentions that he is a seventh-generation Jerusalemite whose family came from Lithuania in 1809, said that compared to the Navon and Gaon families, he is an Ashkenazi new immigrant.
Navon’s family came in 1670, at a time when the Sephardi community represented Jerusalem’s Jewish leadership.
Rivlin, who had already read Navon’s book, said it took him back to the Jerusalem of his childhood, but that the anecdote he liked best was characteristic of Navon’s respect for others. Navon used to read to blind people several times a week; on one occasion, there was a power outage and he found himself in total darkness, not knowing which way to move. Two of the blind people moved forward, each taking one of his arms. “Don’t worry,” they told him. “We’ll show you the way.”
In congratulating Navon “in the name of the people of Israel,” Rivlin enthused that usually when he uses that expression, it’s just a formality, but this time he could say it in all honesty – because there was no more beloved Israeli president than Navon.
Herzog recalled that when Navon had passed on the presidency to his late father Chaim Herzog, he had told him: “I’m transferring this etrog to you. Guard it well.” Herzog also mentioned the presence of Navon’s son and daughter, Erez and Naama, and his grandson Yoav, adding that he knows what it means to be the son of a president.
He also spoke of the link between Israel’s fifth and tenth presidents, beyond the fact that both are Jerusalemites.
“You both raised the flag of morality,” he affirmed. “You both tell people the truth. You are both the pillar of fire for a Jewish and democratic state.”
Barkat praised Navon for having elevated the culture of the Holy City, both through his writings and his service to the state, stating, “Jerusalem is proud to have been blessed with a man of your caliber.”
Author and Israel Prize laureate Eli Amir, who has known the fifth president since he was a 16-year-old delivery boy bringing messages to Navon from the Foreign Ministry, said that Navon was always slow to finish anything because he was such a perfectionist. That was why it took him so long to complete his autobiography, which Amir had doubted he would ever get to read. It had been a fantasy of his, he detailed, that the day would come when he and fellow Israel Prize laureate Haim Gouri would lead Navon like a bridegroom to the huppa to celebrate the launch of his book – “and finally, that day has come.”
Navon’s niece Ora Setter observed that what everyone in the auditorium had in common was that they all love her uncle. Reminiscing about how family-oriented he had been, she said that wherever he traveled in the world, he never forgot to bring home gifts and always added to her doll collection.
The 94-year-old Navon was not the only nonagenarian in the hall.
Gouri is 91, and yet another Israel Prize laureate – David Rubinger – was celebrating his own 91st birthday.
There were other nonagenarians and octogenarians present, with whom Navon had worked over the years or to whom he was related.
One such person was Dalia Goren, who had been David Ben-Gurion’s secretary and later became Navon’s secretary, also briefly serving as Moshe Dayan’s secretary. Another guest intricately bound up with the history of the state was Kamal Mansour, the Druse adviser on minorities who served presidents Zalman Shazar, Ephraim Katzir, Navon, Herzog, Ezer Weizman, Moshe Katsav and Peres.
Among the other guests were former government ministers Moshe Nissim, Moshe Shahal and Shimon Shetreet; historian and former presidential military attaché Ami Gluska; Haim Cohen, who heads the North African Cultural Center and is a former secretary-general of the Labor Party’s Jerusalem branch; former Supreme Court justice Gabriel Bach; educator and Israel Prize laureate Adina Bar-Shalom; Bank Hapoalim CEO Zion Keinan; lawyer, writer and Labor Party stalwart Hilik Gutman; Kitty Schenker, a social networker whose husband, noted gynecologist Prof. Joseph Schenker, has been invited to a medical conference in Iran; TV, radio and stage personality Yossi Alfi; artist Anastasia Bar-Yaacov; and many other people of note.
Navon was visibly moved by the adulation, and while he might have wanted to return to Shaare Zedek or go home at the end of a long evening, he had to stay and accept the handshakes and embraces of a long line of people who wanted to congratulate him and wish him well.
■ BEFORE LEAVING Israel today at the conclusion of his tenure, British Ambassador Matthew Gould – who was the first British ambassador of the Jewish faith to be sent to Israel – succeeded in maintaining a British Embassy tradition of hosting an Iftar event for both Muslim and Christian members of the Arab community.
This year’s Iftar, on Monday evening, was also by way of a farewell event. Held in Iksal, southeast of Nazareth, it was attended by more than 100 prominent Arab political, religious and business leaders.
Among them were MK Ahmad Tibi; Iksal Mayor Abd il Salam Darawshe, as well as mayors of other Arab towns and villages; Dr. Bishara Bisharat, director of the English Hospital in Nazareth; Bishop Giacinto- Boulous Marcuzzo of Nazareth and the Galilee; Alpha Omega founder Hans Shakur; and many other prominent figures in the Arab community.
Whether they live in urban or rural environments, the Arabs are known for the warmth of their hospitality – from which Gould benefited on many occasions during the close to five years he was in Israel. He thanked them for allowing him yet another opportunity, through his final Iftar dinner, to express appreciation for their friendship; for helping strengthen ties between the Arab community and the British Embassy; and to celebrate some of the things they had done together, including the embassy’s efforts to improve planning in Arab towns and to build business links between the Arab community and the UK.
Gould also mentioned the support the British Embassy has provided to Arab tech entrepreneurs through the UK-Israel Tech Hub and in a different field, the embassy’s support for the Equalizer, which brings Arab and Jewish children together to play football. He was happy to have the chance, said Gould, to wish Israel’s Arab citizens “Ramadan Kareem.”
■ SINGER, SONGWRITER and composer Shlomi Shabat, who is known as the soul of Israeli music, will be on El Al’s inaugural direct flight from Tel Aviv to Boston this Sunday, and to celebrate the occasion will give a special performance on Monday at Boston’s John Hancock Hall. The El Al flight schedule will include three weekly nonstop flights to Boston every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday evening.
■ FOR THOSE who may not know, there are extensive renovations under way at Rachel’s Tomb. To celebrate the completion of the first stage, an ancient Torah scroll was rededicated and added to the precious scrolls in the ark. The renovation process is being jointly facilitated by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, Ohio; the Religious Services Ministry; the Jewish Agency; the civil administration; the holy sites authority; and Amigour Management of Assets Ltd. Representatives from all of the above – including rabbis, cabinet ministers, officials of the various institutions as well as senior IDF officers and several wellknown philanthropists – were present for the dedication ceremony, which was presided over by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Religious Services Minister David Azoulay and Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites Shmuel Rabinowitz.